28 May 2024

ACT MP Todd Stephenson sells his shares

5:11 pm on 28 May 2024
ACT MP Todd Stephenson listens to evidence in select committee.

ACT MP Todd Stephenson Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

ACT Party MP Todd Stephenson is divesting all his shares to ensure there are no distractions to his role as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Associate Health Minister David Seymour.

It comes after Labour's deputy leader Carmel Sepuloni made allegations in the House last week about Stephenson's interests in the pharmaceutical industry, and his role advising Seymour on Pharmac funding.

Speaking under Parliamentary privilege in the debating chamber, she described Stephenson as a "pharmaceutical industry plant".

His pecuniary interests declaration showed he had holdings in healthcare companies Chimeric Therapeutics, CSL Limited and Johnson & Johnson.

In a statement, Stephenson said the allegation was outrageous and completely baseless, and his role had no decision-making powers.

"There is no conflict between my declared shareholdings and the work I have been doing to support David Seymour as the Associate Health Minister," he said.

"That's because the role of Parliamentary Private Secretary is a non-executive role without decision-making powers - its purpose is to build relationships with relevant communities, represent the Minister at public events, and assist with administrative matters.

"The allegation made by Labour's Deputy Leader also shows she doesn't understand how Pharmac operates. Pharmac does not share information about specific drugs with Ministers, and Ministers have no ability to influence Pharmac's decision-making process."

He said he took his role as Private Secretary and MP "extremely seriously", and had been "consistently open and transparent about the meetings I have attended and have declared my shareholdings in the pecuniary interests register".

"I will not allow anything to distract from the Government's goal of delivering real change in the critical area of medicines access. I've decided to divest all my shareholdings as reported in the pecuniary interests register to ensure no distraction exists. I look forward to continuing my work with David Seymour as his Parliamentary Private Secretary."

Stephenson - a list MP - is the ACT Party whip, and its spokesperson for eight portfolios including health.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said the matter of Todd Stephenson's shares had come up in conversation with ACT leader David Seymour, but refused to give details of that chat.

"We talk regularly, that was one of the topics that came up," he said. "Those conversations are private - between myself and the leaders."

He said the MP's decision to divest was the right one, however.

"Very much so ... the first thing I'd say is a Private Parliamentary Secretary - let's be clear, it's a backbench MP offering support to a minister with accountability ... there's no decision making, he's not part of Cabinet office, he's not part of the Cabinet executive, but it's just the perception of a conflict of interest and it's important that's dealt with."

ACT leader David Seymour said Stephenson had decided to sell the shares on his own initiative.

"He came to me and said 'this is the right thing to do'. I can't stress enough he's done absolutely nothing wrong, he's broken not a single rule and he's gone the extra mile because he wants to create the best possible perception of his role.

"You contrast that with Michael Wood who did have an obligation to sell, was asked to do it 14 times, that's the difference.

"I think the fact that he's highly knowledgable about the pharmaceutical industry is a strength, not a weakness."

Seymour said he, not Stephenson, was the minister responsible for the portfolio and argued no minister had decision-making powers about specific pharmaceutical funding decisions by Pharmac: "we just set the general expectations with how Pharmac will work".

Labour leader Chris Hipkins said it was good Stephenson had sold the shares, but there were more questions to be answered, "about why he was given that role in the first place given he held those shareholdings".

He said he agreed with the phrase Sepuloni had used, and was "very comfortable with the comments that Carmel made in the House" - but notably did not utter the phrase in response to reporters' questions.

He also pointed to National's pre-election policy which promised a specific range of cancer drugs they would fund.

"So therefore having people involved in that process on the government side who had direct shareholding interests in the companies that could stand to benefit from - that is absolutely something they should be questioned on."

Seymour rejected that, saying Stephenson had no involvement in the policy.

"In any case those particular drugs were identified by the cancer control agency, not any particular politician.